The Greek system has been a hallmark of the American college experience for years now.
Culturally engrained in such works as “National Lampoon's Animal House,” involvement with university fraternities and sororities has often been heralded as the quintessential “college experience,” the social nexus of higher education; as American as apple pie. However, a history of exclusionary practices, secrecy and hazing rituals has also made much of the Greek system questionable in the eyes of many students and administrators.
Now, you may have noticed that Western does not currently operate any fraternities or sororities. Many an incoming freshman has been slightly thrown off in surprise or dismay by Ridgeway Complex residence hall names like “Sigma,” “Alpha,” “Delta,” and “Omega.” However, this momentary confusion illustrates the fact that a great many students flock to Western's campus for our pronounced lack of fraternal and sororal orders.
Love it or hate it, many students wonder why Western does not host a Greek system. In fact, students have wrestled with this issue in the past and have actually voted on the establishment of Greek systems at least twice in Western's history.
According to Kathy Louzao, lead secretary for Student Activities, the issue of recognizing fraternal organizations on campus was first brought up to vote and then struck down in the 1950s.
While the terms of the 1950s decision remain unclear, the issue came to vote again most recently by referendum in the Associated Students spring election of 1982. To the question, “Do you wish to see the formation of fraternities and sororities on Western's campus?” students overwhelmingly answered “No,” with an 85% majority striking down the referendum. There hasn't been another proposal since.
So, what's the deal? Why the resistance toward adding a Greek system to Western?
Part of the answer lies in the history of Western and club membership policies.
“It is important to consider [Greek system] membership as it operates as a component of AS club systems,” Kevin Majkut, director of Student Activities, said.
Within the Associated Students, club membership is open to all students as established in the university's weighty equal access policy, which ensures that all students are provided with equal opportunities to access all aspects of University life.
Although some room exists for the establishment of limited access groups with very specific recognition policies (as in the case of honor societies), these groups have reduced access to funding.
According to Majkut, given the system we have in place, “frats and sororities are limited membership organizations with inconsistent recognition policies, so a special category would have to be created to recognize and support them.”
In such a situation both the students and the university administration would have to approve and enact the necessary policy changes together to facilitate the “colonizing” process that Greek systems employ to establish institutions on a campus; usually several steps are involved. Such joint actions ensure that the actions of the AS are consistent with the university's priorities as well, and in this case, the equal opportunity provisions.
Western has never recognized a Greek system to organize or socialize students, Western has preferred instead to rely on the structural models provided through the Associated Students, such as club formations and broader campus-wide activities.
“We encourage students to form their own communities,” Majkut said. “It seems that Western already has a real multiplicity of organizations running—lots of different communities developing their own inertia.”
For instance, groups in Bellingham may set up their own houses with fraternal models to provide a shared space for similarly minded students sharing religious beliefs, international travel experiences, or similar hobbies. However, in contrast to other schools with Greek systems, Western doesn't give formal recognition to sanction these arrangements near the campus.
Instead, Western's current model allows students to openly organize their communities as they please without impinging on the activities of their other classmates. This may explain why so many students choose Western's campus climate over larger state universities with more rigid social systems in place.
As Majkut put it, “Western doesn't tend to have a lot of strong central traditions and I think that tends to serve our student body well.”